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28 Fascinating, Fun Facts About Books and Reading

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Grace Lapointe

Senior Contributor

Grace Lapointe’s fiction has been published in Kaleidoscope, Deaf Poets Society, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, and is forthcoming in Corporeal Lit Mag. Her essays and poetry have been published in Wordgathering. Her stories and essays—including ones that she wrote as a college student—have been taught in college courses and cited in books and dissertations. More of her work is at https://gracelapointe.wordpress.com, Medium, and Ao3.

Reading is such a subjective activity that each individual and culture approaches it differently. Some interesting facts about books and reading: Some readers don’t visualize at all while reading. In his 2014 book What We See When We Read, Peter Mendelsund wrote that even people who visualize while reading experience it vastly differently. Some people consciously picture characters and scenes; some experience them spontaneously, like performances occurring in front of them. There are myriad ways to experience storytelling, but it’s easy to assume what we’re familiar with is the only or best way.

Years ago, I learned many myths and exaggerations from textbooks or outdated articles, so I’ll try to debunk some of those. Many of these were inaccurate and Eurocentric. For example, Johannes Gutenberg was the first person in Europe to invent a printing press, but Bi Sheng was the first person in the world to invent one. All the knowledge of the ancient world wasn’t lost forever when the Library of Alexandria burned. That’s hyperbole.

Other myths result from over-generalizations. I wish I could confidently name the most popular book or author of all time or the first novel ever. However, for questions like these, there’s no single, definitive answer. It’s more accurate to say these are SOME OF the oldest surviving, most expensive, or most popular, books of all time, for example. The answers vary across cultures and eras and are impossible to know for sure.

What’s the Best-selling Book of All Time?

In 2021, the Guinness Book of World Records named the Bible the best-selling book of all time, with over 5-7 billion copies sold. They’re referring specifically to the Christian version of the Bible. There are so many editions and versions of the Bible, including ones that have been lost or never meant to be sold (for example, if they were made in monasteries). This makes statistics about it hard to pin down.

So, if the Christian Bible is the best-selling book overall, what’s the best-selling novel ever? In May 2023, Kevin Wong at IGN compiled this list, explaining why this task is so challenging, and excluding political and religious texts. According to the list, the best-selling novel of all time is Don Quixote, with 500 million copies sold since it was first published in Spanish in 1605 and 1615.

What Was the World’s First Novel?

A lot of scholars consider The Tale of Genji, written by Japanese courtier Murasaki Shikibu before 1021 CE, the first novel ever. But, as this article explains, there are many older works fitting the definition of a long, fictional, prose narrative. Callirhoe, from 1st century Greece, is a much older example.

Who Was the Earliest Known Author?

An Akkadian (ancient Mesopotamian) princess and high priestess named Enheduanna signed her temple hymns in 2300 BCE. This is the earliest surviving example of a single author signing their work. Many more were anonymous or are unknown today.

When Were Books First Printed?

Around 1000 CE in China, Bi Sheng invented movable type, which was much faster than copying by hand. He invented the world’s first printing press technology.

In 1440 in France, German printer Johannes Gutenberg invented the first movable-type printing press in Europe. The first book mass-produced with his printing press was the Bible. Today, this is called the Gutenberg Bible, and only 49 copies still exist (more on that in the library section later in this article!).

OK, But Why are Books that Shape?

Most books are long rectangles because specific proportions are comfortable for most people to hold or for their eyes to scan. Audiobooks and adjusting fonts, spacing, and contrast on ebooks make books more accessible. If books got much wider or heavier, the pages would put too much strain on their spines.

Books with non-standard formats (for example, triangular or covered in fuzzy material) can be nightmares for publishers and booksellers. As always, there are exceptions. The tactile board book Pat the Bunny has been a bestseller since it was first published in 1940.

What is the world’s oldest surviving library?

The oldest library still in existence is Khizanat al Qarawiyyin in Fes, Morocco. Fatima al Fihria founded it in the 9th century CE. BR profiled 14 more of the world’s oldest libraries here.

More Library Facts About Books

In a 2023 YouTube video, Kaz Rowe debunked several popular misconceptions about the Library of Alexandria. Many people believe that when the library was burned down, most of the ancient world’s knowledge was lost, setting literature and science back centuries. But as Kaz says in their video, this is wrong or grossly exaggerated on several counts. Historians don’t know who destroyed the library or why. There were two major centers of learning in Alexandria, not just one. Ancient Roman writer Galen wrote that Ptolemy required copies to be made of almost every book in the library. This counters the myth that countless, unique books were lost forever.

The beloved marble lions outside The New York Public Library’s Beaux-Arts Building in Manhattan are named Patience and Fortitude. I learned this through experience when I visited a friend, who was then an NYPL librarian. I was baffled when she asked me if I’d taken “a picture with Patience and Fortitude.” Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia named them during the Great Depression, thinking the names Patience and Fortitude would be encouraging. The nonfiction book Top Cats: The Life and Times of The New York Public Library Lions by Susan G. Larkin chronicles their history.

In 2020, for its 125th anniversary, the NYPL listed their top 10 book checkouts of all time in a blog post. At the time, The Snowy Day had been checked out the most: 485,583 times!

The Morgan Library in NYC has 3 Gutenberg Bibles, the most of any institution.

There was an unsuccessful attempt to steal Harvard’s Gutenberg Bible in 1969, but the thief underestimated the volumes’ weight.

Nineteenth century steel magnate Andrew Carnegie spent $60 million to create and fund 1,689 public libraries all around the U.S. Many libraries at the time were subscription-based or racially segregated, but Carnegie’s were free, public, and open to everyone. Many workers criticized Carnegie for cracking down on strikes and prioritizing libraries over fair wages.

What’s the Most Expensive Book?

This blog post about auctions details the most expensive book ever sold: a handwritten, original version of the Book of Mormon, dictated by Joseph Smith, sold for $35 million in 2017. Other books on the list include a first printing of The Canterbury Tales and the Northumberland Bestiary from 13th century England.

Infamous Typos

Typos can be a pain, but some people have faced steep penalties for them. In 1631 England, Robert Barker lost his printer’s license and was fined for printing a version of the King James Bible saying, “Thou shalt commit adultery” (omitting the word “not.”) Another notorious typo in an edition of the Bible said, “sin on more” (instead of “sin no more”). At least one of these versions was in Aziraphale’s bookshop in Good Omens, I think.

What are the Rarest Books in the World?

The rarest books in the world include Shakespeare’s First Folio, worth an estimated $5.2 million. Folio and related book formats are defined on this page.

Longest Series

In 2020, we broke down some of the longest book series by genre. One of the longest SFF series ever is The Guin Saga by Kaoru Kurimoto and illustrated by Alexander O. Smith. It’s a comic with over 150 total volumes.

Reading Wasn’t Always Silent

As this BR article notes, today, most people consider reading a private — even solitary — activity. But according to A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel, until around the 1500s, most books were read out loud and not punctuated. This makes sense because books were expensive, and most people couldn’t read. In his Confessions, from 4th century North Africa, Augustine noted Ambrose reading silently, which implies it was probably rare.

(Some of the) Oldest Manuscripts

In 2017, Atlas Obscura asked librarians about the oldest and rarest items in their collections. Their answers include the oldest existing European cookbook from 830 CE Germany and Sumerian cuneiform tablets from 2050 BCE, now in the Library of Congress.

Some of the oldest surviving physical books in the world include The Diamond Sūtra, a Chinese Buddhist text that’s around 1,145 years and the oldest surviving, printed book. The Etruscan Gold Book is approximately 2,673 years old.

Individuals Who Invented Entire Writing Systems

In the early 1800s, Sequoyah (Sikwayi in Cherokee), a Cherokee silversmith, painter, and warrior, created a writing system with 86 letters to record the Cherokee language. The ancient Sequoia trees in the Pacific Northwest were named after him, using an alternate spelling of his name. He was also sometimes called George Gist.

Louis Braille was born in France in 1809 and became blind at age 3. When he was a teenager, Braille started trying to invent a reading and writing system for blind people that was more efficient than raised letters. Embossed dots were a rejected note-taking code from the military, and Braille adapted them into the system named after him. This information comes from Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius by C. Michael Mellor, a biography sold in Braille format on the National Braille Press’ website.

The Books Adapted into Films Most Often

The books adapted into films most often include Les Misérables, A Christmas Carol, and Dracula. Since the linked article was published in 2020, Netflix released Scrooge: A Christmas Carol, meaning there are at least 50 adaptations of Dickens’ book. That’s not even counting movies like The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017), which imagines Dickens’ creative process writing A Christmas Carol.

The Most Translated Books

After the Bible, the books translated the most include The Little Prince and the ancient Chinese Taoist text, The Tao Te Ching.

Mysterious Nursery Rhymes

This BR article analyzes the origins of popular nursery rhymes. Contrary to popular belief, “Ring Around the Rosie” was NOT about the bubonic plague. It’s way more recent than the plague outbreaks, among other reasons.

Are People Reading More During this Ongoing Pandemic?

Yes, apparently! In 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that consumers spent 22.9% more money on reading for pleasure in 2020 and 1.8% more in 2021. In November 2020, an estimated 35% of people around the world were reading more than in 2019.

What is Publishing’s Carbon Footprint?

This 2022 Book Riot post analyzes the publishing industry’s carbon footprint. Most studies of publishing’s carbon footprint don’t take biodiversity into account. In other words, they measure the rise in carbon from deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, but not the impact on local ecosystems. Ereaders can help reduce your carbon footprint — but only if you read a lot of books. If you rarely read a book, paper may be a better environmental choice.

Further Reading

Explore some of the coolest bookstores in the world. And at the opposite extreme from “fun facts,” some facts and legends about books are downright horrifying.